Zoologist George Schaller Heads for China to Help Save the Imperiled Giant Panda

updated 09/15/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/15/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

One day in the mid-'60s, when George Schaller was studying the behavior of tigers in central India's Kanha National Park, he walked around a large boulder and—suddenly uneasy—stopped. Three feet away he spied the head of a full-grown male tiger that was napping behind the rock.

"I took off like mad," Schaller recalls, "and climbed a tree. The tiger came over, sat down and looked up at me. We gazed at each other a few minutes and I said, 'Go away.' He trundled off."

Whether the big cat was just not hungry or somehow sensed he was looking at a benefactor and not a meal, he deserves the thanks of the animal kingdom. Thousands of gorillas, lions, leopards, yaks, alligators and other creatures literally owe their lives to George Schaller.

Director of conservation for the New York Zoological Society, Schaller, 47, has spent much of his adult life in the field—the rain forests of Zaire, India, the Serengeti plains of Tanzania, the Himalayas and, at the moment, the dense Mato Grosso of Brazil. By studying animals, Schaller has tried to learn how to protect them.

He has succeeded often enough to become one of the world's most honored conservationists. His 1972 book The Serengeti Lion won the National Book Award. In 1978 he received the prestigious Order of the Golden Ark from Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands. Last June the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) gave him its highest award, a gold medal for his career work in conservation.

This year the WWF asked him to head a joint program with China to save one of that country's most cherished resources—its giant pandas. A thousand or more of the rare animals are threatened by a cyclical shortage of bamboo, their primary food. Schaller will try to find alternative food sources for the pandas, as well as new areas where bamboo exists. Schaller visited Peking in May, and shortly after he returns this month from Brazil—where he is observing jaguars—he will return to China. He expects to spend much of the next five years in that country on a variety of conservation projects.

Schaller's wife, Kay, exaggerates only a little when she says their family was "carefully planned—around expeditions." A trained anthropologist herself, she and their two sons, Eric, now 19, and Mark, 17, lived in the field with George until the boys reached school age. She plans to leave their Roxbury, Conn., home in January and join him at Wolong Reserve in Sichuan Province, where the pandas live.

It will be a continuation of a journey that really began soon after they met at the University of Alaska. George's father was a German diplomat and he lived in Europe until 1947, when his mother brought him to an uncle's home in Missouri. (His parents later divorced.) As a boy, George recalls, "I wandered around the woods, turned over rocks and caught lizards. Later on I found I could make a living doing almost the same thing."

From his 1955 college graduation until 1966, Schaller did field research for several conservation groups. He conducted pioneering studies in Alaska (birds and caribou), Zaire (gorillas) and India (grazing animals as well as tigers). In 1966 he joined the New York Zoological Society and since then has worked in Tanzania (the Serengeti predators and their prey), Nepal and Pakistan (wild sheep, goats and snow leopards) and Brazil (jaguars). The Himalayan expedition included one 1973 trek with writer Peter Matthiessen that led to Matthiessen's 1978 bestseller The Snow Leopard, as well as Schaller's Stones of Silence, published this spring.

There is, Schaller carefully points out, a mundane quality even to such romantic work. "You can think of lots of reasons why you want to go home," he says. Boredom is one. "A Serengeti lion sleeps 21 hours a day on the average, a hoofed animal spends 10 hours a day or more eating grass. You spend hours and hours and hours waiting for something to happen."

The things that do happen—mating behavior, hunting, territorial battles—help Schaller work with host governments to plan tourist-attracting game preserves. He also mollifies farmers who believe, often wrongly, that predators are destroying their livestock.

Schaller's research and writing have made him financially comfortable. "I have a very pleasant home, and that's all I want," he says, adding that he has no desire for a desk job. He prefers to work alone in the field—"If someone else is there, you're tempted to talk and not pay attention to what's going on"—and, tigers notwithstanding, he never carries a weapon. "If an angry bear or jaguar or gorilla is charging in bluff, which it usually is," he says, "it may come to within 10 feet of you, then take off. If you're standing there with a rifle, you're going to shoot. I don't want to be in that kind of situation."

Schaller believes animals can sense humans' motives, and if so, he is confident he will remain unscathed. "People have no right to exterminate other creatures," he insists. "Animals have a right of existence, just for themselves, even if they don't do us any immediate good. They evolved with us. They have a right to persist with us."

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